The list of why we should exercise is long; it’s mood-boosting, gets your heart rate up, burns fat, builds muscle, and improves overall health and wellbeing. But did you know it might also improve memory?
According to a study published in the journal "Neurobiology of Learning and Memory" by researchers at Brigham Young University, exercise in mice boosted memory even under stressful situations.
Importance of the Study:
It’s been proven that negative mental situations such as stress, adversity, and distress cause a decline in the brain’s ability to learn and retain information. This study proves the ability of the brain to counteract these effects with regular exercise– by strengthening communication between brain cells.
Memories are embedded into specific brain cells in the hippocampus. You can essentially call this the brain’s memory center.
In order to piece a memory together, brain cells must be able to connect with each other in order to keep the experience intact, as memories are generally spread around multiple brain cells.
The connections are made between nerve cells (known as synapses) and are composed of electrical and chemical signals that move from cell to cell. In general, the stronger the messages between neurons, the sturdier and more permanent the memories they hold.
The actions above are often affected to some degree by our lifestyle choices. Sleep cycles, alcohol or substance abuse, chronic stress, and diet can slow down the flow of the connections made in the brain.
In order to learn, practice and repetition of an action encourage the signals between the cells (the ones that maintain the memory) of said action to strengthen.
Again, if this flow is interrupted, learning is inhibited.
There is also speculation that exercise can affect synapses in the hippocampus. There is no dispute that exercise has been shown in many studies to improve learning and memory.
But only a few past animal studies have closely studied the changes to synapses after exercise and none looked simultaneously at stress. Since life always contains stress to some degree, these studies were unrepresentative of life as a whole.
That’s why BYU’s study is so important!
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To summarize the research without using crazy scientific terms, basically what they did was include stress as a factor in their measurements in mice.
After gathering healthy, male mice, they were split into groups of non-exercisers and exercisers. The mice with wheels in their cages ran up to three miles per day, at will.
They put them through specific trials that varied depending on which group the mice belonged to.
Some of the sedentary mice continued to live their normal rodent lives, while some were restrained to simulate stress.
The active mice were split in the same way, with some remaining free to run around and others into forced restraint.
To see if there would be any changes to the synapses of the mice due to their experiences, the researchers had some critters from each group learn a maze with a treat hidden in a corner.
The researchers took a microscopic look at the hippocampi of the animals. By electrically stimulating some of the cells, they could see the messages jumping between them and interpret the data scientifically.
The sedentary mice that were restrained understandably had reduced synapse efficacy compared to the mice in the control group.
The unrestrained runners had the strongest synapses.
The mice that ran and were put under stress had synapses resembling the control group. Although they were not as strong as those of the unstressed runners, they were stronger than the stressed sedentary mice.
Both the stressed and unstressed runners learned the location of the treats in the maze more quickly than the sedentary animals did, and remembered it better several weeks later.
The leader of the study, Roxanne Miller, said: "Overall, it seems that exercise had improved the animals’ memories, even in the face of stress, by bulking up their synapses and buffering the negative effects that stress otherwise would have had on those neural connections."
What does this mean, exactly?
Mice are not people, and it is impossible to know if the same changes occur in our synapses when we exercise. However, there is a growing body of research supporting the notion that exercise boosts memory. If anything, the results just add one more reason to the list of why we should lead an active life.
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